“Skinny fat” is a well-known term on weight loss and fitness blogs and articles. Usually, it means a person is at what is deemed by BMI charts to be a healthy weight, yet health is not optimal.
It may be that the healthy-weight individual can still “grab handfuls” (of belly), to quote one forum I frequent. Or it may just be that the person’s weight is fine but she experiences health symptoms normally attributed to an overweight condition: fatigue, sluggishness, bad skin, less than optimal blood test results and more.
If you’re slim but are having health concerns you thought would be eradicated by losing weight (or staved off by not gaining in the first place), you’re not alone. But one particular extreme minority – people with a specific gene mutation – are not only “skinny fat,” their condition is opening new possibilities in metabolic research.
A Small Group Offers Big Possibilities in Weight and Health Research
This fascinating study showed some slender people have a constellation of symptoms generally related to an overweight state, including Type II diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and, yes – fatty liver.
The rare condition, called lipodystrophy, is characterized by an abnormal lack of fatty tissue. Although you may be saying “that’s definitely not me!” (for the record, it’s not me, either), studying the condition resulted in some fascinating clues into how the body stores fat, how hunger happens, and how we might begin to tip the scales in our favor…whether we’r over- or underweight.
“Overweight” Conditions in the Very, Very Thin
Patients with lipodsytrophy, while lacking fat tissue and generally weighing far under what would be considered a healthy weight, will often present with the constellation that makes up insulin resistance.
This can include Type II diabetes, unhealthy cholesterol numbers, high blood pressure, and for some, fatty liver (NAFLD).
Because these symptoms are generally associated with being very overweight, researchers were stumped as to how their lipodystrophy patients could have them at all, much less in to the extremes the scientists were seeing.
This prompted a more intensive study of the condition, what causes it and what the results are…and offered some tantalizing clues as to how these health conditions can happen whether one is overweight or not.
Leptin Offers a Clue
The researchers discovered that lipodsytrophy patients lack sufficient leptin. This hormone increases appetite when the body needs to eat. But with lipodystrophy patients, they were always hungry but couldn’t gain, because leptin is released by fat cells and they lacked the cells, therefore they lacked sufficient leptin to signal that they were full.
When patients were given leptin, they stopped being so hungry, and the dangerous symptoms diminished, including dangerous fat around the liver.
But there was an amazing side effect of this study: it showed that certain issues (which may include NAFLD) are not always caused by being overweight, and may be at least partially ruled by hormones and our own genetics.
How Do You Know?
Since even (albeit in extreme cases) the very thin may have “obesity”-like health issues, how do you know if you’re at risk for them?
Many of these health issues have no symptoms at all; others may have subtle symptoms that increase over time. Even if you’re at a healthy weight, see your doctor for a full checkup, especially if you are feeling unfamiliar symptoms, such as being overly tired, constantly feeling hungry even though you’ve just eaten, constant thirst, sluggishness, fatigue or sleep issues, such as insomnia or wanting too much sleep.
In the meantime, don’t assume that because you’re slim, whatever you’re eating must be the right thing. A person can eat Twinkies all day and weigh in at a “healthy” BMI (though it’s on the rare side). No matter what your current weight, eat healthfully and get plenty of exercise. Barring genetic conditions, this is your best health insurance policy, now and in the future.